News / 21 February 2012


Between January 12th and 20th, Both ENDS colleague Marie José van der Werff ten Bosch accompanied Chris Reij (CIS, VU University Amsterdam) to the south of Niger, to see with her own eyes what Chris has been advocating for many years now: farmers have turned this dry part of the Sahel green.


Niger can experience tremendous heat and extreme aridity - the north of the country is part of the Sahara Desert. It is the immense heat of the Saharan Desert climatic zone which proves detrimental to the little rainfall coming to this "Frying Pan of the World". Nevertheless, even though we are now in the dry season, the visited areas in the southern Sahelian climatic zone were largely green! Not because of the agricultural crops, but because of the trees growing on farmers' fields. Especially the Faidherbia albida, or Gao in local language, can be seen everywhere: amongst others it fixes nitrogen in the soil, providing free fertilizer. And this odd tree keeps its leaves during the dry season, and sheds them in the rainy season (most trees do the opposite), giving the crops enough sunlight for their growth.

In general trees in and around the agricultural fields, so-called agroforestry systems, give benefits to the farmers. Termites cut up the shedded leaves into miniscule particles that enrich the soils with organic matter.Furthermore, the leaves and fruits of many tree species make good fodder or medicins, or they enrich the human diet. Branches give fire- and construction wood which can be used or sold on the local market. If the branches are cut out with the right pruning techniques, the tree will easily survive, lasting many more years.


In Niger, the trees on farmers' fields have not been planted. These trees have regenerated from the seed stock and root systems still present in the soils. Around Maradi and Zinder in the Southern provinces, farmers have employed a strategy of protecting spontaneous regeneration of trees on their fields for some 20 years now. 5 million hectares have been turned green already this way! At an average density of 40 trees per hectare that makes some 20 million trees. This makes it the largest reforestation initiative ever to have occurred in Africa - and one carried out largely through farmers' own initia-tives; in fact, the government and international agencies were hardly aware that it was happening. This strategy is called RNA: Régénération Naturelle Assistée, or Assisted Natural Regeneration.

Both ENDS and the VU-CIS have engaged with local scientists (CRESA Niamey) and NGOs to spread the succesful RNA approach to other areas within Niger. The Turing Foundation funds our joint regreening project in the area around Dogondoutchi. A visit to this area shows that the project is well underway - everywhere young trees can be spotted among the millet stubbles. To the trained eye it is very clear that a revolution is going on here: all the young trees are well pruned, the evidence of organised action. Such action is much needed - trees can save lives in periods of drought. This year the harvest of millet has failed because of the little rain. Everywhere we saw pruned or cut trees - people sell the (fire)wood in order to earn some money and buy food. This way the trees help them through the dry period, making RNA a vital approach to food security and creating local resilience.

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